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Winooski kicks off centennial celebrations

Published: Mar. 9, 2022 at 4:21 PM EST
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WINOOSKI, Vt. (WCAX) - The city of Winooski is kicking off centennial celebrations this month with a number of events.

Organizers say the celebration highlights a theme of welcoming and opportunity and includes a mix of in-person and online events. Some of those include self-guided tours, or a mill-to-mall exhibit highlighting the repurposing of Winooski’s mills. There are also portraits of 100 residents and employees in Winooski around town.

These activities put the focus on the Onion City’s rich history, from wool manufacturing to the big dome proposal of the ‘70s. “I think that Winooski just has a really interesting history and I think that we’ve planned events in a way that really engages people of all ages and all backgrounds,” said Amy Lafayette, one of the event’s organizers.

Once the weather warms up, Winooski will be holding an Abenaki land acknowledgment and tree planting, and on June 4th, there will be a big community birthday party at Rotary Park.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF WINOOSKI

Archaeologists have evidence of indigenous presence on the banks of the Winooski Falls dating back 9,000 years ago. Fast forward thousands of years to the 1800s and Winooski became an industrial hub for jobs in woolen textiles, screens, and furniture, attracting immigrant labor from places like Canada, Ireland, Syria, and Italy. In 1868 it was incorporated as a village of Colchester, but as the boom in jobs required more industrialization, Winooski and Colchester split up. By March of 1922, Winooski was incorporated as a city. As Elissa Borden reports, the rest is history.

The Winooski we know and love today looks much different than it did when it was first incorporated as a city in the 1920s. “For a little more than one square mile, it always amazes me how much history actually took place here and how many connections there are to this one little slice of Chittenden County,” said Joseph Perron with the Winooski Historical Society.

One hundred years of history began with the split of Colchester and Winooski. After an ongoing debate about the needs of the two communities -- Winooski needed more infrastructure, which was different than Colchester. “By the 1920s Winooski had really developed a distinct urban character, which was in great contrast to Colchester, which was largely agricultural and rural,” Perron explained.

Winooski became its own city in March of 1922, a time when mills and industry were bustling. Shortly after, the flood of 1927 dealt a massive blow to the city’s infrastructure, but the mills kept on producing. “During World War Two, the mills were going full force and were producing miles of woolen material for uniforms and blanket material,” Perron said.

After World War II ended, and after the Korean War, military contracts with these mills mostly diminished. “And also the mills had become -- at that point they were over 100 years old so they had become relatively antiquated and also synthetic materials were being developed,” Perron said.

By 1954, all of the mills had closed d own, delivering a massive blow to Winooski’s economy. In an effort to recoup, there was an attempt at making automobile textiles in the mills. “In the 50s, automobiles were big so they thought, well maybe that’s how we can reinvent Winooski, and unfortunately it was short-lived,” Perron said. All the major industries were gone by 1973. “That prompted an urban renewal campaign which wiped out a pretty large swath of the east side of Main Street.”

In an attempt to attract new residents, Winookski turned to urban revitalization. The unused mills were turned into retail and residential space. “This major downtown revitalization project was undertaken with federal assistance and brought a lot more housing and really helped to reinvent the downtown,” Perron said.

Winooski made major headlines for the proposal of “the dome” in the late ‘70s. It was proposed to surround a shopping area and help keep the heat in. “It was also during the energy crisis of the late ‘70s and they were looking at alternative ways of saving energy and they thought that maybe encapsulating some of this under a dome structure would help save on fuel costs,” Perron said.

The dome never happened but the urban renewal efforts through the decades left us with the Winooski of today. Something that really never changed -- the diversity of the city’s residents. Between the mass of jobs in the early 20th century to the refugee resettlement program that has welcomed new Americans to the city since 1980. “Even in present day, with the great diversity that the city has, we find some continuity between what was happening here 100 years ago and what the city is currently experiencing,” Perron said.

Present-day Winooski is home to just under 8,000 residents, all tucked within just 1.43 square miles. That makes it one of the most densely populated and racially diverse cities in northern New England.

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